This fall, students can look forward to dining on homegrown carrots, eggplants and tomatillos during lunch. A new program will allow kids to grow their own produce on campus and send it straight to the district's kitchens to supplement school meals.
Living Classroom, a nonprofit group dedicated to teaching kids about nutrition and gardening, has been running its program at the Mountain View Whisman School District for years. The group got a breakthrough this year when it was awarded $74,000 by the El Camino Healthcare District to expand its nutrition and garden education program, including new opportunities to send fruits and vegetables grown by students to the cafeteria.
Living Classroom founder Vicki Moore said the group will be hiring a consultant to help the program become real, small-scale food producers. The garden won't be able to produce enough for the entire student body, Moore said, but it will be enough for schools to set aside a special day once in a while for kids to taste the fruits of their labor.
"We want students to make that connection between growing the food yourself and eating it, and understanding where the food comes from," Moore said.
The new program is intended to curb childhood obesity, which continues to be a problem in the Bay Area, particularly among minority groups. By fifth grade, only 30 percent of the students in the Mountain View Whisman School District can meet the statewide fitness standards, and over 38 percent of Latino children in Santa Clara County are classified as either overweight or obese.
The incidence of obesity has flattened out a little bit in recent years, but it's still high, according to Barbara Avery, director of the hospital's community benefit program. She said right around fifth grade is when students in Mountain View school begin gaining weight, and it shows on the fitness test results. Better eating habits will hopefully stick once kids to learn about how produce is grown and are exposed to new kinds of food, she said.
"The goal is to get kids to want to eat these (healthier) foods," Avery said. "It's hard to compete with the food industry."
The grant funding also will bolster the existing Living Classroom lessons, where elementary students across the district get a chance to visit the gardens and learn about plant anatomy, how to grow fruits and vegetables, and the kinds of health benefits that come from eating produce. Kids as young as pre-kindergarten are taught about the health benefits associated with different colored vegetables.
In the "seed to pretzel" lesson, for example, students go through the process of growing wheat and learning about what kind of nutrition is lost when producing white flour. By the end of the lesson, students get a good idea of the origins of the food they eat.
As of this year, Living Classroom has installed edible gardens at all Mountain View Whisman elementary school campuses.
The effectiveness of the program will be based on how many kids try new fruits and vegetables, are directly involved in planting and harvesting in the edible gardens, and whether the students can demonstrate greater nutritional knowledge and improved eating habits.
Moore said the goal is to find an effective way of keeping a close eye on whether students are eating more produce on a regular basis, and whether their knowledge of healthy eating habits change throughout the lessons.
To get students to try more fruits and vegetables while on the campus, Living Classroom will be running "Charlie Carts" during lunch and recess -- carts that can be rolled out onto the campus to prepare food for kids looking to get a quick bite between classes.
School district staff has been more than happy to incorporate the fruits and vegetables into the food services program, Moore said, particularly the new child nutrition director, Juan Cordon.
"He said they love what we're doing and they will incorporate anything the students grow into the recipes," she said.